By Stephen F. Beiner

It is said that history is a huge mirror, reflecting who we were and who we are. Perhaps it is this timelessness that is in part the allure of ancient art. In a strange twist of fate, today's headlines detailing our involvement in the war in Afghanistan have sparked a renewed interest in the art of Gandhara, the ancient kingdom that two centuries ago was located in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northwestern India.

The centuries-long distinguished tradition of Afghanistan's archeology precipitously began to decline as the Soviet troops crossed the Amu Daru River in 1979 and occupied the country. Hastening that decline was the direct hit from a rocket in 1993 on the Kabul Museum, and the subsequent plundering of its contents, once considered one of the finest collection of Gandharan art in the world. The decline that started with the Soviet invasion and occupation was sealed in 1996 when the Taliban seized power. The Taliban's abhorrence of all art and symbols of non-Moslem religions culminated with their destruction of the monumental twin Buddhas in the Bamiyan region.

Gandharan statuary is exceptionally pleasing to the western eye with its blend of Greek and Indian artistic elements. Ancient Gandhara, located at the crossroads of trade (and invasion) routes between Europe and Asia, nurtured a remarkable fusion of cultures, religions and art. The region was a vibrant center for the commercial and cultural exchange between east and west; this wealthy center of international trade was dominated by a sequence of powers starting with the Greeks, and culminating with the Indian and Central Asian empires.

Alexander the Great led 37,000 troops against Persia in the spring of 334 B.C. In the following four years his army occupied the region covering modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. By the age of 26, Alexander became the mightiest conqueror of all time. Although his troops were anxious to return home, Alexander decided to push eastward toward the fringes of the then-known world. For the next three years (329-327 B.C.E.) Alexander's armies struggled desperately to conquer Gandhara and Bactria, the harsh, inhospitable region of modern Afghanistan. A lack of provisions and severe snowstorms forced his troops to eat their baggage animals raw in order to survive. The indigenous people mounted a fierce resistance, developing a new style of warfare --hit-and-run guerrilla combat-- that we still hear about daily. To retain control of the region, Alexander settled his men in military colonies; his soldiers lamented having to spend their lives so far from the balmy climate in Greece. When Alexander departed, he left behind 13,500 reluctant soldier-settlers who intermarried with the local population. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C.E., the unhappy Greek troops who had settled in Gandhara tried to return to Greece, but they were compelled to stay under penalty of death by Alexander's generals. And stay they did, preserving Greek values and art forms in this alien land for two hundred years, until the Greek settlements were finally overwhelmed by nomadic invaders from the north.

The diverse ethnic composition of the population of Gandhara apparently made its inhabitants especially receptive to the Buddhist religion, which sought converts regardless of their ethnic background or class. As a result, Gandharan art is a unique fusion of Greco-Roman influences, Indian forms, and Buddhist art. Just as Buddhist teachings drew on ancient Indian cults, so Gandharan sculptors borrowed from traditional Indian imagery. The figures' clothes and ornaments are often Indian in origin. However, these are combined with the Greco-Roman traditions of verisimilitude and palpable detail, as seen in some of the statues' exaggerated musculature, in the heavy drapery, the use of classical motifs, and even sometimes very Greco-Roman looking faces. Gandharan sculpture combines the serene and gentle nuances of Indian art with the strength typical of Greek and Roman art.

The recent dramatic events in the region, the unique melding of cultures and styles in Gandharan art, as well as its relative affordability has created a lively and renewed interest in Gandharan art. Today Gandharan art is the "hot item" in the antiquities market; a few years ago Gandharan art was virtually unknown except to the esoteric collector. Prices for Gandharan art are literally going through the roof. In the October, 2001 Christy's sale of Indian and Asian art in New York, a Gandharan figure of a bodhisattva estimated at between $60,000 and $80,000 was sold for a record $358,000. I attended the Christy's New York sale of Asian and Indian art in mid March; the bidding was exceptionally lively and all Gandharan art sold for well in excess of the pre-auction estimates.

The unique fusion between east and west in Gandharan art is equally appealing to traditional collectors of classical antiquities as it is to collectors of Asian art. While many of the artifacts now coming on the market are generally without provenance, careful comparison with known sculpture coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan leave little doubt as the authenticity of the pieces.

The Griffin Gallery (Gallery Center, Boca Raton) at its next monthly opening on April 4, 2002 will be featuring a newly acquired Gandharan gray schist frieze, dating to the 2nd century C.E. depicting a standing Buddha surrounded by four acolytes. The Buddha in typical Gandharan fashion, is wearing a flowing robe typical of earlier western, Greco Roman tradition. The Buddha's face, serenely and gracefully turned toward the acolytes, has features typical of Indian art.

While Gandharan art still remains relatively affordable, it is evident that as the interest in this art continues to increase and the pieces become increasingly less available, prices will dramatically increase.

STEPHEN F. BEINER is a practicing attorney in Boca Raton. Together with his wife, Dr. Judith Beiner, he owns the GRIFFIN GALLERY OF ANCIENT ART, Gallery Center, Boca Raton, Florida.

member, TROCADERO © 1998-2002